Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #93: Too Much of Nothing

This is, I would assume, one of those songs that might confound a person listening to The Basement Tapes for the first time; I confess that, after having listened to the song in preparation for this post, I still don't have a particularly good handle on it. Reading the lyrics makes the song come off kind of like a down-home version of Confucius or something, with Dylan spouting words of wisdom about the dangers of an idle life - at least, I think. What's a little frustrating is that the song is actually more plain-spoken than Dylan often gets, and yet there's something about the whole thing that sort of eludes whatever finger you're trying to put on it, as though the meaning is staring us right there in the face and it's up to us to discover it. And what in the hell is that "say hello to Valerie/say hello to Vivian" stuff all about?

It's a fun song, make no mistake; the chord changes in the last lines of every verse give the backing track a remarkable lift, as though they're building towards something really, REALLY important. Perhaps, then, the nonsensical chorus is meant to be a parody of those types of big chord changes, deflating our expectations of "hey, this is gonna be great"? I'm sure that's reading too much into it - if nothing else, the harmony vocals are just as good on the chorus here as elsewhere, so at least the non sequiturs sound pretty cool. And that ramping up also helps give the song an added character, as the tune's general tone is as a languid droll romp (much like the rest of the sessions). Robertson's guitar, in particular, lopes its way throughout the track at a nice slow trot, almost as though it'd had a puff or two of something. That relaxed tone acts as a counterpoint to Dylan's lyrics, which really do have some weight behind them.

Of course, the easy interpretation of the song is that Dylan's having a bit of laugh at himself and his bandmates, idling about in upper New York and avoiding actually doing some work (although there are some that believe that Dylan & co. really were doing work...) in favor of just rockin' some jams, man. It's an amusing idea, to be sure, but just a little too clever by half (which, it should be mentioned, describes a lot of those theories). I like to think that Dylan, in fact, was taking the opposite tack and telling us that, in fact, he was more than happy to get back to work and make some music. We know that Dylan sort of took a break from the rigors of being a famous musician, especially when it came to the touring scene (which defines a working musician more than anything else, with the possible exception of actually recording songs), but people occasionally seem to think that this meant that Dylan spent his time in isolation, baking bread with his kids, the same way that John Lennon more or less disappeared from the public stage after his Lost Weekend and eventual reconciliation with Yoko Ono. That is clearly an oversimplification of things - Dylan recorded more than his fair share of albums between 1966 and 1974, and even took a role in a movie and contributed its soundtrack. Sure, he spent time with his family as well, but he kept himself busy, make no mistake. About the only thing he DIDN'T do was tour, and given the rigors of 1966, one can hardly blame him.

It is that frame of reference, then, that I believe that "Too Much of Nothing" has to be heard. Dylan clearly knew that after he broke his neck - in a way, a manifestation of the break-neck lifestyle he'd adopted as he ascended to superstar status - that certain things would have to change in the way that he lived his life. And he made those changes, and the result was the "wilderness" period in which he managed to completely reinvent himself in the American consciousness. But Dylan always knew that being an artist was in his blood, and he made sure that he was never completely at rest, letting his idle hands do the devil's work. And, in the end, the swan song of the road finally was too much for Dylan to resist, and he'd head back out on the road (with the Band, of course - it should be noted that it was about this time that Dylan's marriage started to splinter) to reclaim his standing as one of the biggest acts in the world, along with being one of the best. Dylan knew when he needed to slow down, but much like the sharks I talked about in the "My Back Pages" post, he knew that he simply couldn't stop.

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Steve MC said...

I found your site by accident a ways back (and posted my theory on "Just Like a Woman"), and just came back to clue you in to a great live bootleg site.

It's run by a guy in Canada and he has lots of quality Dylan, including studio outtakes and recent concerts.


He's going to take the site private in a few weeks or so, but until then (and after he opens it back up later this year) you can select what you'd like. Just go easy on the downloading - one or two files at at time.

So there you go. As someone who appreciates Dylan's work so much, I thought you deserved to know about it.

Anonymous said...

Every song on Bob Dylan's album Basement Tapes rated & commented

NOLA Fash New Orleans Street Beat FASHION said...

It's so obvious what it's about. Biblical references, depression era folk pinings, profession of hope in am otherwise hopeless world. idk.
~ Darla Braquet

Paul F said...

I don' know -- I always read "too much of nothing" to refer to poverty, not voluntary idleness. The idleness read doesn't make sense in the context of the lyrics (makes a man angry, shout at a king, etc.)

Anonymous said...

"Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivien..."
Lachlan MacKinnon in the T.L.S. points out that Valerie and Vivienne were the two wives of T.S. Eliot...

David George Freeman said...

Hello Tony, thank you for posting this interesting essay. Join us inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://thebobdylanproject.com/Song/id/684/Too-Much-of-Nothing and listen to every version of every song.

tuskedbeast said...

I like the idea that "nothing" is death, and at least that much of the song is about brooding about it, "too much".